To hear Chicago’s CAVE is to hear a fascinating study in simultaneous control and exploration. Over its discography, the band has slowly but surely wound itself into a tighter and tighter coil, moving from the more open-ended early work, to the taut propulsion of Neverendless and now, on Threace, that tense movement continues to swell with unassuming but no less vital energy.
The band, as its moves have gotten subtler (and its overall movement more fluid), is not much for cheap tricks. There’s no big splashes or oddball shifts—despite Can comparisons—to hook you. Instead, Threace seeks to mesmerize. 12-minute opener “Sweaty Fingers” comes on in a basic, funky shuffle. The bass runs seamlessly through its peaks and valleys, the guitars will occasionally knock out a wah-soaked solo, but mostly they just chug out distorted chords. Sometimes the volume ramps up—the whole song feels like the soundtrack to a chase sequence, one with various climaxes and lulls—but eventually the song just settles into a basic interplay between drum and bass. The guitars are off in the distance, but front and center are Rex McMurry’s high hat and Dan Browning’s sweat-drenched bass, pressing forward with steady resolve.
The song leads into “Silver Headband”, which whips the formula up into a darker stutter-stomp. But the guitars still just ring out, keyboards add some atmosphere, and the band keeps their military-insistent pace. The first 18 minutes of this record are so uniform, they’d fade into the background if they weren’t so arresting. Without hairpin turns or odd flourishes, the music’s power is plain but amplified because of its plainness. It also makes the moment in the last third of “Silver Headband”, when the tempo shifts to and odd edge and the guitars stop ringing and start slashing through the song at bizarre angles, all the more satisfying.
The band earns their moments of deviation. So even if they get back to the funked-out shuffling on “Arrow’s Myth”, now the textures feel subterranean. Under the warm dim light of saxophone, the guitars skronk away, their fills billowing out in clouds of treated distortion. The song opens up into more formless explorations later, but never loses its shape all the way, the negative space and ambient keys reminding us just how flesh-and-bone the rhythm section is, how haunting the guitars can be.
The album, despite its insistent pacing, does end up moving us through all manner of curious textures. We get electronic funk turns, stringy, noodling guitar solos, keyboard vamps that recall but never ape Bitches Brew, sweet, airy flute lines. And they all mesh together perfectly. Closer “Slow Bern” is a fittingly soft-spoken closer, with edge guitars melting into slow-dripping phrasings, the drums slow but not exhausted, off-kilter but methodic, the bass as steady and surprising as it is on every other moment of this record. Threace is a hard-earned kind of exploration, the kind of experimentation made all the weirder for never really seeming weird. CAVE has been slowly but surely building themselves to this moment, its finest yet, and there’s no sign that movement will stop. Despite the stasis the band’s name implies, it is always moving forward and this, the latest pushpin on their musical map, is a location worth revisiting, because you will find new things to explore each time, no matter how well you get to know the terrain.